Don’t be fooled by the fact Chagrin Falls returns just one starter from last season’s squad that won 16 games and a conference title.
The Tigers, who finished last season 16-7 overall and 7-1 in league play on the way to winning the Chagrin Valley Conference Chagrin Division championship, may be replacing four starters but they are talented and have the potential to match their success from last season.
“This group has a ton of potential and the sky’s the limit,” said 14th-year head coach Brittany Laseak. “When you look on paper and see that we only have one returning starter or look at the stats and see how much scoring we graduated, it doesn’t look great, but we’ve seen some flashes of really good team play in the preseason and could accomplish great things once we come together as a team.”
The Tigers return seven players with varsity experience and have added some talented freshmen into the mix.
“We bring back several players with varsity experience and have some freshmen that are used to playing up-tempo basketball,” Laseak said. “We can handle the basketball and play on the perimeter. There’s a lot of flexibility and versatility in all five spots on the floor.”
Chagrin Falls isn’t deep, which will force the Tigers to focus on their conditioning to consistently play at a fast pace.
“Like many teams in the area, our numbers are down,” Laseak said. “We need to be in really good shape for this coming season because everyone will see significant playing time. We don’t have a lot of height, so rebounding and post defense will be an all-out team effort.”
The Tigers return three players who earned all-conference honors last season including Abby Coy, Lilly Stukus, and Amelia Bencko.
Coy, a 5-foot-6 junior guard who averaged 4.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.6 steals per game last winter on the way to earning honorable mention All-CVC honors, suffered a knee injury during the fall sports season and likely will be sidelined this winter.
“I can’t not mention Abby Coy,” Laseak said. “She was our starting point guard last year and got better with each and every game. Abby has been working hard on her physical therapy program and still attends every practice and scrimmage. She is such a bright spot on our bench, encouraging her teammates and coaching them up.”
Stukus, a 5-foot-8 junior guard/forward, is Chagrin Falls’ lone returning starter and she has been one of the top players in Northeast Ohio since she cracked the starting lineup as a freshman.
Last season, Stukus earned first-team all-conference and all-district honors and was named third-team All-Ohio. She was an honorable mention All-Ohioan as a freshman.
Stukus averaged 15.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 steals, and made 51 3-pointers last winter. To improve her conditioning, she ran cross country this fall and earned a spot at the state meet.
“Lilly is an incredibly motivated, high-motor individual,” Laseak said. “She spends a tremendous amount of time working on her game. Lilly is a sharpshooter but can finish on a drive as well. She turns high-pressure defense into transition offense. Lilly has emerged as a positive leader and role model for our team.”
Bencko is a 5-foot-9 senior guard/forward who earned honorable mention All-CVC honors last winter after averaging just over one point and one rebound per game.
“Amelia is a player that I can put into any of the five spots on the floor,” Laseak said. “She works really hard to learn each and every role and completes each task assigned to her with no complaints. Her versatility in the preseason has really helped us thus far and we’re hoping to continue to put her in positions to create mismatches for our opponents.”
A senior and two freshmen round out the projected starting lineup.
Norah Pope is a 5-foot-10 senior forward with the ability to help out at any position.
“Norah is an outstanding athlete who can play every spot on the floor,” Laseak said. “She was our sixth player last season and she’ll be called upon to fill a similar this year–be ready to play any spot and to defend anyone. Norah helps us to stretch the floor offensively and can play the role of enforcer in the paint.”
Avery Russell, a 5-foot-8 guard, and Abby Kay, a 5-foot-3 guard, are two freshmen Laseak believes will be difference-makers for the program over the next four years.
Russell already has shown glimpses that she has what it takes to be successful at the high school level and never backs down from a challenge, even when going head-to-head against a two-time All-Ohioan.
“Avery is one of those players that I’ve been looking forward to having in the high school program since she was in second grade,” Laseak said. “In camps and clinics, I’ve seen her effort and positive energy firsthand and I’m excited to finally have this fierce competitor on our team. Avery is capable of knocking down outside shots, finishing on pull-up jumpers, and driving hard to the hoop. Watching her play in summer league and go head-to-head with Lilly in the preseason has been entertaining and shows a ton of potential. Avery doesn’t back down from a challenge and has this intrinsic motivation that you don’t see in many players now.”
Kay also demonstrates her willingness to do whatever is needed to help the team and should immediately strengthen the Tigers’ defense.
“Abby is another freshman that plays with a ton of fire,” Laseak said. “She will play pesky, physical defense on the ball and wants the ball in her hands on offense. Abby doesn’t care who she’s going up against, she wants to win. She’s been learning a ton in our scrimmages this preseason and we’re hoping that she can continue to pick things up quickly as the season progresses.”
Three seniors and four juniors will provide the Tigers with depth this winter.
The seniors include Elena Goodwin, a 5-foot-8 forward, Madison Nightwine, a 5-foot-6 forward, and Allie Jones, a 5-foot-6 guard.
“Elena is incredibly bright and can pick up any assignment for us. She is a great rebounder and makes good decisions on offense. Elena has been an outstanding leader for us and does a wonderful job coaching up her teammates,” Laseak said. “Madison is one of the most coachable players I’ve ever had. She listens intently to everything that you say and works so hard to apply it on the floor. Last scrimmage, one of her teammates commented on how locked in she was. She knows her role and she can execute it.”
Emma Thatcher, a 5-foot-4 guard, Caroline Lynch, a 5-foot-9 forward, Mia Sluder, a 5-foot-8 forward, and Avery Kohanski, a 5-foot-8 forward are the juniors.
“Emma is another player who is very smart on the floor. She is methodical and meticulous while running the point. Emma can be patient for the play to develop and she bides her time before making a move. Emma is levelheaded and doesn’t let any plays let her get too up or too down,” Laseak said. “Caroline is so much fun to watch play because she enjoys every minute. She plays with a smile on her face as she sets solid screens and collects big rebounds. Caroline has really embraced her role on the team and could give us some quality minutes inside this season.”
The Tigers set out this season to defend their conference title, and they know it’s going to be a challenge to that, especially with the addition of Richmond Heights to the division. The Spartans won the Metro Division last season.
“We want to defend our CVC title and advance to the district tournament, “Laseak said. “Last season, we had some tough CVC competition, and it doesn’t get any easier this year with the addition of CVC Metro champion Richmond Heights being added to our division. We also graduated three major scorers and only have one returning starter, so it’s on everyone to step it up so we can defend it. Our district is absolutely loaded with talent, and it will be interesting to see how the super districts and RPI shape that up this year.”
To overcome the challenges they’ll face this year, the Tigers are focusing their attention on their own controllables.
“If we can defend in the half court and keep our composure on offense, we will be successful. If we can rebound as a team, we will be successful,” Laseak said. “We have to make sure we work together to get the job done and everyone needs to accept their role in order to do that. It’s going to take a lot of work, but this is a great group of girls that are competitive, passionate, and care about one another. They’re willing to put in the work for each other.”